One of the more memorable chapters of Jose Fernandez’s all-too-brief life and career came when he hit his first major league home run, back in 2013 against the Atlanta Braves. At the time he watched his home run for a lot longer than a young player is supposed to. If, at least, the young player cares about baseball’s so-called “unwritten rules.”
The Braves cared an awful lot about those unwritten rules and it led to a fracas involving Fernandez, Braves catcher Brian McCann and Braves third baseman Chris Johnson. It was one of the more notable incidents in the ongoing battle between players who talk about “playing the game the right way” and a younger generation of primarily Latino players who carry themselves differently. With more celebratory joy and more bat-flipping flair.
In the latest Sports Illustrated the great S.L. Price has a profile on Fernandez and, for part of it, he talked with Chris Johnson. Johnson joined the Marlins in 2016 and came to know Fernandez. They patched things up over the 2013 incident. But they didn’t just bury the hatchet. Johnson says that Fernandez fundamentally changed the way he viewed the game:
“I couldn’t have been more wrong,” Johnson said . . . “He changed me,” Johnson said. “I smile. Before, I was always intense and took the game as a job and had to make it, and had to stay in the big leagues, had to get the contract, had to be the guy. No: You don’t have to do anything. You made it, you got to the big leagues, you’re in the United States of America, got a beautiful family. The game is fun. He played the game how I played the game in Little League. That’s how everybody should be in the big leagues.”
Asked if he ever told Fernandez that, Johnson shook his head. “No,” he said, so softly that he had to repeat it. “But I’ll tell him one day.”
There is so much more to Price’s story and it’s well worth your time. But this, touching on a matter we have discussed here over and over again, sticks out for me. It was sad for me to think a couple of weeks ago that it took Jose Fernandez’s death to really appreciate the joyful way he approached the game. But now I know it didn’t take that. Johnson realized after meeting Fernandez. He realized he didn’t have to be that head-down, business-first player so many players and fans believe one has to be to be a true major leaguer.
If the tragedy of Jose Fernandez’s death does anything for baseball in the public sphere, I hope it causes people to realize that one can play it with joy and one can appreciate it being played with flair. That we do no have to pretend there is some code of conduct that players must adhere to, even if so many do by virtue of tradition and conformity.